Former custodians at six of the Recovery School District’s direct-run schools say their former district-contracted employer fired them last week without just cause.

Custodians say representatives from ARAMARK, a Philadelphia-based service corporation that RSD contracted with on April 1 for janitorial services, told them on May 1 they didn’t pass the probationary period that’s standard for new hires. But several custodians said they have been with the schools, although not with ARAMARK, for years, and they said they performed well on their jobs.

Union officials said ARAMARK’s targeting of only full-time employees is a standard tactic to break up unions.

But ARAMARK officials say that the terminations were in line with the employees’ union contract, and that they plan to hire new employees to fill 12 now-open full-time slots.

A crowd of at least 30 employees, represented by the Service Employees International Union, protested the move outside of RSD offices on Poland Avenue Tuesday morning.

“I gave my all to my job. Not just for (ARAMARK), but for the kids and the teachers,” former Abramson Science and Technology School custodian Kim Lewis said.

Lewis, along with the other 11 employees fired, worked full-time. The direct-run schools where they worked are Abramson, L.B. Landry High School, John McDonogh High School, Joseph A. Craig Elementary School, Mary D. Coghill Elementary School, and F.W. Gregory Elementary School.

Two employees, former head custodian Nicole Molett and former lead custodian Sonja Richard, from John McDonogh and Coghill Elementary schools, said that when they were terminated, ARAMARK representatives cited a clause in the employment contract that said that newly hired workers must pass a 30 to 60 day probationary period before being considered for permanent employment.

During the probationary period, “an employee may be terminated in the sole discretion of the employer without recourse to this Agreement,” the employment contract reads. A probationary employee is also not eligible for any of the benefits in the employment agreement.

ARAMARK contracted with RSD on April 1 for facilities services, RSD spokeswoman Kizzy Payton confirmed. Molett and Richard said they worked under Sodexo, another service provider, prior to that.

Molett said she’s worked at John McDonogh for two years, and Richard said she’s worked at Coghill five years. Molett’s been working in public schools for six years, and Richard is a 22-year veteran.

Local union president Helene O’Brien said that a majority of the other fired employees had at least five years of experience at their respective schools.

“All but two of the 12 fired employees had been at the school since 2006 or 2007. Who said they were suddenly on probation?” O’Brien said. The firings were violations of the just cause agreement in the union contract, she said.

And on Monday, the union released a statement that called ARAMARK’s specific targeting of full-time employees “a union-busting tactic.”

ARAMARK communications director Karen Cutler disagreed with O’Brien, and said that they plan to hire more full-time slots:

“All of our employment decisions are fully compliant with the terms and conditions of the union’s collective bargaining agreement.  As such, the union was aware of the recent decisions made with regard to these employees, and is also aware of our intention to replace all 12 full-time positions,” Cutler said in an email.

When a reporter asked RSD officials why RSD switched to ARAMARK in the first place, Payton sent this statement:

“The Recovery School District’s engagement for custodial and maintenance services with Aramark is based on two primary objectives; providing superior service to RSD schools using high-technology equipment that improves employee safety and efficiency, and providing this service at a competitive cost, maximizing the dollars going into the classroom.

“Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 21LA’s agreement and the terms and conditions of that agreement are with Aramark.”

Payton also said that the RSD is not likely to consider another switch because of these complaints.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...